The Piano and Piano Players

December 31, 2006

When Pythagoras, Father of Musical Science, some six centuries before our era, marked and sounded musical intervals by mathematical division on a string stretched across a board, he was unconsciously laying the foundation for our modern pianoforte. How soon keys were added to the monochord, as this measuring instrument was named, cannot positively be ascertained. We may safely assume it was not slow in adopting the rude
keyboard ascribed by tradition to Pan pipes, and applied to the portable organ of early Christian communities.

After the tenth century the development of the monochord seems to have begun in earnest. Two or more strings of equal length are now divided and set in motion by flat metal wedges, attached to the key levers, and called tangents, because they touched the strings. In response to the demand for increased range, as many as twenty keys were brought to act on a few strings, commanding often three octaves. Guido d’Arezzo, the
famous sight-reading music teacher of the eleventh century, advised his pupils to “exercise the hand in the use of the monochord,” showing his knowledge of the keyboard. The keyed monochord gained the name clavichord. Its box-like case was first placed on a table, later on its own stand, and increased in elegance. Not until the eighteenth century
was each key provided with a separate string.

No unimped triumphal progress can be claimed for the various claviers or keyboard instruments that came into use. Dance music found in them a congenial field, thus causing many serious-minded people to regard them as dangerous tempters to vanity and folly. In the year 1529, Pietro Bembo, a grave theoretician, wrote to his daughter Helena, at her
convent school: “As to your request to be allowed to learn the clavier, I answer that you cannot yet, owing to your youth, understand that playing is only suited for volatile, frivolous women; whereas I desire you to be the most lovable maiden in the world. Also, it would bring you but little pleasure or renown if you should play badly; while to play
well you would be obliged to devote ten or twelve years to practice, without being able to think of anything else. Consider a moment whether this would become you. If your friends wish you to play in order to give them pleasure, tell them you do not desire to make yourself ridiculous in their eyes, and be content with your books and your domestic

A different view was entertained in England during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, where claviers were in vogue styled virginals, because, as an ancient chronicle explained, “virgins do most commonly play on them.” The virginal was usually of oblong shape, often resembling a lady’s workbox. With the Virgin Queen it was a prime favorite, although not
named expressly for her as the flattering fashion of the time led many to assume. If she actually did justice to some of the airs with variations in the “Queen Elizabeth Virginal Book,” she must indeed have been proficient on the instrument. Quaint Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814) declares, in his “History of Music,” that no performer of his day could
play them without at least a month’s practice.

The clavier gave promise of its destined career in the Elizabethan age. Shakespeare immortalized it, and William Byrd (1546-1623) became the first clavier master. He and Dr. John Bull (1563-1628), says Oscar Bie, in his great work on “The Clavier and Its Masters,” “represent the two types which run through the entire history of the clavier. Byrd was the more intimate, delicate, spiritual intellect; Bull the untamed genius,
the brilliant executant, the less exquisitely refined artist. It is significant that these two types stand together on the threshold of  clavier art.” Bull had gained his degree at Oxford, the founding of whose chair of music is popularly attributed to Alfred the Great.

As early as the year 1400 claviers had appeared whose strings were plucked by quills attached to jacks at the end of the key levers. To this group belonged the virginal, or virginals, the clavicembalo, the harpsichord, or clavecin, and the spinet. Stops were added, as in the organ, that varied effects might be produced, and a second keyboard was
often placed above the first. The case was either rectangular, or followed the outlines of the harp, a progenitor of this clavier type. It was often highly ornamented, and handsomely mounted. Each string from the first had its due length and was tuned to its proper note.

The secular music principle of the sixteenth century that called into active being the orchestra led also to a desire for richer musical expression in home and social life than the fashionable lute afforded, and the clavier advanced in favor. In France, by 1530, the dance, that promoter of pure instrumental music, was freely transcribed for the clavier. Little more than a century later, Jean Baptiste Lully (1633-1687) extensively employed the instrument in the orchestration of his operas, and wrote solo dances for it.

François Couperin (1668-1733), now well-nigh forgotten, although once
mentioned in the same breath with Moličre, wrote the pioneer clavier
instruction book. In it he directs scholars how to avoid a harsh tone,
and how to form a legato style. He advises parents to select teachers on
whom implicit reliance may be placed, and teachers to keep the claviers
of beginners under lock and key that there may be no practicing without
supervision. His suggestions deserve consideration to-day.

He was the first to encourage professional clavier-playing among women.
His daughter Marguerite was the first woman appointed official court
clavier player. He composed for the clavier little picture tunes,
designed to depict sentiments, moods, phases of character and scenes
from life. He fashioned many charming turns of expression, introduced
an occasional tempo rubato, foreshadowed the intellectual element in
music and laid the corner-stone of modern piano-playing. Jean Philippe
Rameau (1683-1764) continued Couperin’s work.

What is generally recognized as the first period of clavier-virtuosity
begins with the Neapolitan Domenico Scarlatti (1683-1757), and Johann
Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the German of Germans. The style of
Scarlatti is peculiarly the product of Italian love of beautiful tone,
and what he wrote, though without depth of motive, kept well in view the
technical possibilities of the harpsichord. His “Cat’s Fugue,” and his
one movement sonatas still appear on concert programmes. In a collection
of thirty sonatas he explained his purpose in these words: “Amateur, or
professor, whoever thou art, seek not in these compositions for any
profound feeling. They are only a frolic of art, meant to increase thy
confidence in the clavier.”

In Germany, with grand old Father Bach, the keyboard instrument was
found capable of mirroring a mighty soul. The germ of all modern musical
design lies in his clavier writings. It has been aptly said of this
master of masters that he constructed a great university of music, from
which all must graduate who would accomplish anything of value in music.
Men of genius, from Mozart to the present time, have extolled him for
the beauty of his melodies and harmonies, the expressiveness of his
modulations, the wealth, spontaneity and logical clearness of his ideas,
and the superb architecture of his productions. Students miss the soul
of Bach because of the soulless, mechanical way in which they deface his
legacy to them.

His “Twelve Little Preludes” alone contain the materials for an entire
system of music. The “Inventions,” too often treated as dry-as-dust
studies, are laden with beautiful figures and devices that furnish
inspiration for all time. As indicated by their title, which signifies a
compound of appropriate expression and just disposition of the members,
they were designed to cultivate the elements of musical taste, as well
as freedom and equality of the fingers. His “Well Tempered Clavichord”
has been called the pianist’s Sacred Book. Its Preludes and Fugues
illustrate every shade of human feeling, and were especially designed to
exemplify the mode of tuning known as equal temperament, introduced into
general use by Bach, and still employed by your piano tuner and mine.

Forkel, his biographer, has finely said that Bach considered the voices
of his fugues a select company of persons conversing together. Each was
allowed to speak only when there was something to say bearing on the
subject in hand. A highly characteristic motive, or theme, as
significant as the noblest “typical phrase,” developing into equally
characteristic progressions and cadences, is a striking feature of the
Bach fugue. His “Suites” exalted forever the familiar dance tunes of the
German people. His wonderful “Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue” ushered the
recitative into purely instrumental music.

As a teacher he was genial, kind, encouraging and in every respect a
model. He obliged his pupils to write and understand as well as sound
the notes. In his noble modesty he never held himself aloof as superior
to others. When pupils were discouraged he reminded them how hard he had
always been compelled to work, and assured them that equal industry
would lead them to success. He gave the thumb its proper place on the
keyboard, and materially improved fingering. Tranquillity and poetic
beauty being prime essentials of his playing, he preferred to the more
brilliant harpsichord, or spinet, the clavichord, whose thrilling,
tremulous tone, owing to its construction, was exceedingly sensitive to
the player’s touch. The early hammer-clavier, or pianoforte, invented in
1711, by the Italian Cristofori, who derived the hammer idea from the
dulcimer, did not attract him because of its extreme crudeness.
Nevertheless, it was destined to develop into the musical instrument
essential to the perfect interpretation of his clavier music.

His son and pupil, Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), proceeding on the
principles established by his illustrious father, prepared the way for
the modern pianist. His important theoretical work, “The True Art of
Clavier Playing,” was pronounced by Haydn the school of schools for all
time. It was highly extolled by Mozart, and to it Clementi ascribed his
knowledge and skill. In his compositions he was an active agent in the
crystallization of the sonata form. From him Haydn gained much that he
later transferred to the orchestra.

Impulse to the second period of clavier virtuosity was given by Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Muzio Clementi (1752-1832). Mozart, who
led the Viennese school, developed the singing style of playing and the
smooth flowing legato. Leaving behind him the triumphs of his
wonder-boyhood with spinet and harpsichord, he boldly entered the public
concert-hall with the pianoforte, now greatly advanced by the
improvements of Silbermann. Mozart brought into use its special
features, showed its capacity for tone-shading and for the reflection
of sentiment, and may well be said to have launched it on its career.
Tradition declares that his hand was fashioned for clavier keys, and
that its graceful movements afforded the eye no less pleasure than the
ear. His noble technique, based on his profound study of the Bachs, was
spiritualized by his own glowing fancy. In his playing, as in his
compositions, every note was a pearl of great price. With his piano
concertos he showed how clavier and orchestra may converse earnestly
together without either having its individuality marred. The same
equilibrium is maintained in his piano and violin sonatas and his other
concerted chamber music, amid all their persuasive and eloquent
discourse. His charming four-hand and double piano pieces, written for
himself and his gifted sister Marianne, and his solo clavier sonatas
would prove his wealth of musical invention had he not written another

Clementi, born in Rome, passed most of his life in London, where he
attracted many pupils. Without great creative genius, he occupied
himself chiefly with the technical problems of the pianoforte. He opened
the way for the sonority of tone and imposing diction of the modern
style. His music abounded in bold, brilliant passages of single and
double notes. He is even credited with having trilled in octaves with
one hand. Taking upon himself the management of an English piano
factory, he extended the keyboard, in 1793, to five and a half octaves.
Seven octaves were not reached until 1851. His “Gradus ad Parnassum”
became the parent of Etude literature. Carl Tausig said: “There is but
one god in technique, Bach, and Clementi is his prophet.”

Losing the spirituality of a Mozart the Viennese school was destined to
degenerate into empty bravura playing. Before its downfall it produced a
Hummel, a Moscheles and a Czerny, each of whom left in their piano
studies a valuable bequest to technique. Karl Czerny (1791-1857), called
king of piano teachers, numbered among his pupils, Liszt, Doehler,
Thalberg and Jaell. The Clementi school was continued in that familiar
writer of Etudes, Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858), and began to show
respect for the damper pedal. Its most eminent virtuoso was John Field
(1782-1837) of Dublin.

Between these two schools stood Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827), a
giant on lofty heights. Every accent of his dramatic music was embodied
in his piano compositions. Tones furnished him unmistakably a language
that needed no commentary. “In him,” says Oscar Bie, “there were no
tricks of technique to be admired, no mere virtuosity to praise; but he
stirred his hearers to the depths of their hearts. Amid his storm and
stress, whispering and listening, his awakening of the soul, an original
naturalism of piano-playing was recognized, side by side with the
naturalism of his creative art. Rhythm was the life of his playing.” A
union of conception and technique was a high aim of Beethoven, and he
prized the latter only as it fulfilled the requirements of his idealism.
“The high development of the mechanical in pianoforte playing,” he wrote
to a friend, “will end in banishing all genuine emotion from music.”
His prophetic words might serve as a warning to-day.

The past century has given us the golden age of the pianoforte. Advanced
knowledge of acoustics and improved methods of construction have made it
the magnificent instrument we know in concert hall and home, and to
which we now apply the more intimate name, piano. Oscar Bie calls it the
music teacher of all mankind that has become great with the growth of
modern music. As a photograph may convey to the home an excellent
conception of a master painting in some distant art gallery, so the
piano, in addition to the musical creations it has inspired, may present
to the domestic circle intelligent reproductions of mighty choral,
operatic and instrumental works. Through its medium the broad field of
musical history and literature may be surveyed in private with profit
and pleasure.

Piano composers and virtuosos rapidly increase. Carl Maria von Weber
(1786-1826) stood on the threshold of the fairyland of romance. His
scheme of a dialogue, in the opening adagio of his “Invitation to the
Dance,” followed by an entrancing waltz and a grave concluding dialogue,
betokens what he might have accomplished for the piano had he lived
longer. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856) were
the evangelists par excellence of the new romantic school. Schubert,
closely allied in spirit to the master-builder, Beethoven, was
unsurpassed in the refinement of his musical sentiment. The melody
flooding his soul beautified his piano compositions, to which only a
delicate touch may do justice. His Impromptus and Moments Musical, small
impressionist pieces, in which isolated musical ideas are clothed in
brief artistic forms adapted to the timbre of the instrument, may well
be thought to have placed piano literature on a new basis.

The romantic temperament of Robert Schumann was nurtured on German
romantic literature and music. His impressions of nature, life and
literature he imprisoned in tones. He was a profound student of Bach, to
whom he traced “the power of combination, poetry and humor in the new
music.” Infusing his own vital emotions into polyphonic forms he gave
the piano far grander tone-pictures than those of Couperin. The dreamy
fervor and the glowing fire of an impassioned nature may be felt in his
works, but also many times the lack of balance that belongs with the
malady by which he was assailed.

His love of music became early interwoven with love for Clara, the
gifted daughter and pupil of his teacher, Friedrich Wieck. To her he
dedicated his creative power. An attempt to gain flexibility by means of
a mechanical contrivance having lamed his fingers, he turned from a
pianist’s career to composition and musical criticism. In becoming his
wife Clara gave him both hands in more senses than one, and they shone
together as a double star in the art firmament. Madame Schumann had
acquired a splendid foundation for her career through the wise guidance
of her father, whose pedagogic ideas every piano student might consider
with profit. Her playing was distinguished by its musicianly
intelligence and fine artistic feeling. Earnest simplicity surrounded
her public and her private life, and the element of personal display was
wholly foreign to her. She was the ideal woman, artist and teacher who
remained in active service until a short time before her death, in 1896.

Those were charmed days in Leipsic when the Schumanns and Mendelssohn
formed the centre of an enthusiastic circle of musicians, and created a
far-reaching musical atmosphere. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), in his
work for the piano, adapted to drawing-room use technical devices of his
day, and in his “Songs without Words” gave a decisive short-story form
to piano literature. His playing is described as possessing an organ
firmness of touch without organ ponderosity, and having an expression
that moved deeply without intoxicating. Living in genial surroundings,
he was never forced to struggle, and although he climbed through flowery
paths, he never reached the goal he longed for until his heart broke.

Delicate, sensitive, fastidious, Frédéric Chopin (1809-1849) delivered
his musical message with persuasive eloquence through the medium of the
piano. It was his chosen comrade. With it he exchanged the most subtle
confidences. Gaining a profound knowledge of its resources he raised it
to an independent power. Polish patriotism steeped in Parisian elegance
shaped his genius, and his compositions portray the emotions of his
people in exquisitely polished tonal language. Spontaneous as was his
creative power he was most painstaking in regard to the setting of his
musical ideas and would often devote weeks to re-writing a single page
that every detail might be perfect. The best that was in him he gave to
music and to the piano. He enlarged the musical vocabulary, he
re-created and enriched technique and diction, and to him the musician
of to-day owes a debt that should never be forgotten. “He is of the race
of eagles,” said his teacher, Elsner. “Let all who aspire follow him in
his flights toward regions sublime.”

The man who, by his demands on the piano, induced improvements in its
manufacture that materially increased its sonority and made it
available for the modern idea, was Franz Liszt (1811-1886). He will
always be remembered as the creator of orchestral piano-playing and of
the symphonic poem. The impetuous rhythms and unfathomable mysteries of
Magyar and gipsy life surrounding him in Hungary, the land of his birth,
strongly influenced the shaping of his genius. Like the wandering
children of nature who had filled the dreams of his childhood, he became
a wanderer and marched a conqueror, radiant with triumphs, through the
musical world. Chopin, who shrank from concert-playing, once said to
him: “You are destined for it. You have the force to overwhelm, control,
compel the public.”

The bewitching tones of the gipsy violinist, Bihary, had fallen on his
boyish ears “like drops of some fiery, volatile essence,” stimulating
him to effort. On the threshold of manhood he was inspired to apply the
methods of Paganini to the piano. All his early realistic and
revolutionary ideas found vent in his pianistic achievements. He gained
marvelous fulness of chord power, great dynamic variety, and numerous
unexpected solutions of the tone problem. Many technical means of
expression were invented by him, and a wholly new fingering was required
for his purposes. He taught the use of a loose wrist, absolute
independence of the fingers and a new manipulation of the pedals. To
carry out his designs the third or sustaining pedal became necessary.
His highest ambition, in his own words, was “to leave to piano players
the foot-prints of attained advance.” In 1839 he ventured on the first
pure piano recital ever given in the concert hall. His series of
performances in this line, covering the entire range of piano
literature, in addition to his own compositions, given entirely without
notes, led the public to expect playing by heart from all other artists.

As a great pianist, a composer of original conceptions, a magnetic
conductor, an influential teacher, an intelligent writer on musical
subjects and a devoted promoter of the interests of art, he stands out
in bold relief, one of the grand figures in the history of music. His
piano paraphrases and transcriptions are poetic re-settings of
tone-creations he had thoroughly assimilated and made his own. In his
original works, which Saint-Saëns was perhaps the first to appreciate,
students are now beginning to discover the ripe fruits of his genius.
Faithful ones among the pupils who flocked about him in classic Weimar
spread wide his influence, but also much harm was done in his name by
charlatans who, calling themselves Liszt pupils, cast broadcast the
fallacy that piano pounding was genuine pianistic power.

Large hearted, liberal minded, whole souled in his devotion to his art
and its true interests, Franz Liszt seemed wholly without personal
jealousies, and befriended and brought into public notice a large number
of artists. Hector Berlioz declared that to him belonged “the sincere
admiration of earnest minds, as well as the involuntary homage of the
envious.” At the opening of the Baireuth Temple of German Art, in 1876,
Richard Wagner paid him this tribute in the midst of a joyful company:
“Here is one who first gave me faith in my work when no one knew
anything of me. But for him, my dear friend, Franz Liszt, you might not
have had a note from me to-day.”

A rival of Liszt in the concert field, especially before a Parisian
public, was Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871), who visited this country in
1855 and literally popularized the piano in America. Alfred Jaell and
Henri Herz, who had preceded him, doubtless prepared the way for his
triumphs. He and the “Creole Chopin,” Louis Moreau Gottschalk, attracted
much attention by several joint appearances in our musical centres of
the time. Thalberg was a pupil of Hummel, and felt the influence of his
teacher’s cold, severely classic style. He possessed a well-trained,
fascinating mechanism, with scales, chords, arpeggios and octaves that
were marvels of neatness and accuracy, and a tone that was mellow and
liquid, though lacking in warmth. His operatic transcriptions, in which
a central melody is enfolded in arabesques, chords and running passages,
have long since become antiquated, but his art of singing on the piano
and many of his original studies still remain valuable to the pianist.

When Liszt and Thalberg were in possession of the concert platform, they
occupied the attention of cartoonists as fully as Paderewski at a later
date. Liszt, his hair floating wildly, was represented as darting
through the air on wide-stretched pinions with keyboards attached–a
play on Flügel, the German for grand piano. Thalberg, owing to his
dignified repose, was caricatured as posing in a stiff, rigid manner
before a box of keys.

Rubinstein and Von Bülow offer two more contrasting personalities. Anton
Rubinstein (1830-1894) was the impressionist, the subjective artist, who
re-created every composition he played. The Russian tone-colorist he has
been called, and the warmth and glow with which he invested every nuance
can never be forgotten by those who were privileged to hear his Titanic
interpretations, over whose very blemishes was cast the glamor of the
impassioned temperament that caused them. “May Heaven forgive me for
every wrong note I have struck!” he exclaimed to a youthful admirer
after one of his concerts in this country during the season of 1872-3.
Certainly the listener under the spell of his magnetism could forgive,
almost forget. Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) was the objective artist,
whose scholarly attainments and musicianly discernment unraveled the
most tangled web of phrasing and interpretation. His Beethoven recitals,
when he was in America in 1875-6, were of especial value to piano
students. As a piano virtuoso, a teacher, a conductor and an editor of
musical works, he was a marked educational factor in music.

In his youth Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), the great apostle of modern
intellectual music, made his début before the musical world as a
brilliant and versatile pianist. Once, when about to play in public
Beethoven’s magnificent Kreutzer Sonata, with Remenyi, who was the first
to recognize his genius, he discovered that the piano was half a tone
below concert pitch, and rather than spoil the effect by having the
violin tuned down, the boy of nineteen unhesitatingly transposed the
piano part which he was playing from memory into a higher key. The fire,
energy and breadth of his rendering, together with the splendid
musicianship displayed by this feat, deeply impressed the great
violinist Joachim, who was present, and who became enthusiastic in his
praise. Schumann, on making his acquaintance, proclaimed the advent of a
genius who wrote music in which the spirit of the age found its
consummation, and who, at the piano, unveiled wonders. By others he has
been called the greatest contrapuntist after Bach, the greatest
architectonist after Beethoven, the man of creative power who
assimilated the older forms and invested them with a new life entirely
his own. His piano works are a rich addition to the pianist’s store, but
whoever would unveil their beautiful proportions, all aglow as they are
with sacred fire, must have taken a master’s degree.

Two pupils of Liszt stand out prominently–Carl Tausig (1841-1871) and
Eugene D’Albert (1864- —-). The first was distinguished by his
extraordinary sense for style, and was thought to surpass his master in
absolute flawlessness of technique. To the second Oscar Bie attributes
the crown of piano playing in our time. Peter Iljitch Tschaikowsky
(1840-1893), the distinguished representative of the modern Russian
school, was an original, dramatic and fertile composer and wrote for the
piano some of his highly colored and very characteristic music. Edward
Grieg (1843- —-), the national tone-poet of Norway, has given the
piano some of his most delightful efforts, fresh with the breezes of the

The veteran French composer, Charles Camille Saint-Saëns (1835- —-),
has won great renown as a pianist, and was one of the most precocious
children on record, having begun the study of the piano when under three
years of age. He was the teacher that knew how to develop the
individuality of the young Russian, Leopold Godowsky, who has done such
remarkable work on two continents, as a teacher and piano virtuoso.

Perhaps the most famous piano teacher of recent times is Theodore
Leschetitzky, of Vienna. His method is that of common sense, based on
keen analytical faculties, and he never trains the hand apart from the
musical sense. His most renowned pupil is Ignace Jan Paderewski, the
magnetic Pole, whose exquisite touch and tone long made him the idol of
the concert room, and who, with time, has gained in robustness, but also
in recklessness of style. Another gifted pupil of the Viennese master is
Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, of Chicago, an artiste of rare temperament,
musical feeling and nervous power, of whom Dr. Hanslick said that her
virtuosity was stupendous, her delicacy in the finest florid work as
marvelous as her fascinating energy in the forte passages.

The great tidal wave set in motion by the piano has swept over the
civilized world, carrying with it hosts of accomplished pianists. Of
some of those who are familiar figures in our musical centres it has
been said that Teresa Carreńo learned from Rubinstein the art of piano
necromancy; that Rosenthal is an amazing technician whose
interpretations lack tenderness; that De Pachmann is on terms of
intimacy with Chopin, and that Rafael Joseffy, the disciple of Tausig,
combines all that is best in the others with striking methods of his

Great is the piano, splendid its literature, many its earnest students,
numerous its worthy exponents. That it is so often made a means of empty
show is not the fault of the piano, it is due to a tendency of the day
that calls for superficial glamor. Herbert Spencer was not so wrong as
some of the critics seem to think when, in his last volume, he said that
teachers of music and music performers were often corrupters of music.
Those certainly are corrupters of music who use the piano solely for
meaningless technical feats.


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